Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, October 17, 2016

Kathryn Neurnberger, _The End of Pink_

THE LAUGHLIN AWARD winner is usually a good bet (LLL is looking forward to the appearance of Mary Hickman's volume, which won the honor this year), and The End of Pink confirms the rule. The poems successfully conjoin the confession al and the learned, the abstract and the particular, the plain and the lyrical.

The volume has three parts. Most of the poems in the first part involve the intersection of memories from girlhood, adolescence, or young womanhood with one or another volume out of the history of natural science, e.g., More Experiments with the Mysterious Properties of Animal Magnetism, or Birds of Ohio, or of not-exactly-science (The Symbolical Head) or of just plain hucksterism ("Testimonial"). What gets to count as knowledge, and why, the poems keep asking, with particular attention to the differences gender makes.

Or, we could say, the differences that sexual experience, pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth, and motherhood make, as these possibilities create the volume's most compelling through-line. The title poem, which occurs at the end of the first section, turns out to be about just that kind of difference, once we take in its first line, "My nipples are brown now."

The second and third sections cover different ends of the spectrum. In the second are nine prose poems about "the saint girl" situated among aspirations and temptations. The third is haunted by two familiars, a peacock the speaker keeps tucked behind an ear (and who may be a trace of the dreamlife of the saint girl) and a daughter of pre-school age. In "Peacock and Sister," a little miracle of a poem read in its context in the book, the two familiars merge:

My peacock became a tassel of grass 
and a field, a wind, and also a flower.
It was so sad when she left 
and said, No more now.
But then she put herself behind 
that much smaller ear 
that didn't hear her, 
but had a pretty hydrangea there
and knew it to be pretty, 
so pretty and the petals so soft.

There is quite a bit of pain and bewilderment in The End of Pink, a lot of education that flips on its belly to reveal itself as vanity ("I haven't yet written about Teach for America, / which is a kind of Peace Corps putting silvery-spoon summa cum laudes / in inner city schools"), and a certain amount of cruelty--all of which that pre-school daughter, the volume knows, will someday have to negotiate. But she has that peacock.

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